Pumpsie Green (R) was the first African American to play for the Red Sox. He is shown here with Earl Wilson (L), who pitched a no-hitter in 1962, the first by an African American in American League history. (Leslie Jones photograph, from the Leslie Jones Collection of the Boston Public Library, August 30, 1959)
As Fenway Park celebrates the grandeur and endurance of its 100th birthday, its most famous inhabitants, the Boston Red Sox, remain the team whose noble saga also has an ignoble history — it was the last MLB team to have a black athlete on its roster.
That honor goes to Pumpsie Green in 1959. But, in a move as equally significant as trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, Red Sox management could have signed Jackie Robinson two years before the future Hall of Famer signed in 1947 to become the first black to play in ther major leagues.
The blame for that decision rests squarely on the hands of Tom Yawkey, a wealthy man who purchased the Red Sox in 1933. Yawkey presided over the team for 44 years, longer than any owner in big league history, and his racial beliefs were more aligned with those in the Deep South than here in the more enlightened Boston.
By way of comparison, the Red Sox’ previous owners, the Quinn family, would go on to integrate the Boston Braves in 1950.
It took a while before the Red Sox got the message.
In April 1945, Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick and black newspaperman Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, joined forces to press the Red Sox to sign a colored player. Isadore Harry Yaver Muchnick was born on January 11, 1908, in Boston’s West End, which no longer exists. He was the first boy to receive a double promotion at Boston Latin since Ben Franklin. In sports, he was a Harvard letterman in both ice hockey and lacrosse.
As a young activist, he and his wife Ann were members of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrants in America Society, and Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, and other Jewish organizations in Boston. On City Council, he represented Mattapan, then 99 percent white.
Muchnick threatened to revoke the Sox’ city permit to play Sunday baseball, lest the team integrate. At the time, the permit required a unanimous Council vote for approval, and Muchnick told Collins he would vote against Sunday play.
Black Boston sports journalist Mabray “Doc” Kountze called Muchnick a “white modern abolitionist.”
In addition, the Globe’s sportswriter Dave Egan pressured both the Braves and Red Sox to sign colored players.
General Manager Eddie Collins responded by writing Muchnick:
“As I wrote to one of your fellow councilors last April, I have been connected with the Red Sox for twelve years and during that time we have never had a single request for a tryout by a colored applicant.
It is beyond my understanding how anyone could insinuate or believe that all ball players, regardless of race, color or creed have not been treated in the American way so far as having an equal opportunity to play for the Red Sox.”
Collins invited three Negro Leaguers to try out: speedsters Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes, and Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars.
Any of the three, at the time, would have been the fastest player in the American League. The ’45 Red Sox were shorthanded and underperforming because of World War II. Their star player, Ted Williams, was not with the team in April, but flying fighter planes. Nondescript and forgettable players such as Ben Steiner, Catfish Metkovich, and Skeeter Newsome dotted the roster.
Jackie Robinson — early in his first season as a Negro Leaguer, a Southern Californian, known better as a college football star — was skeptical about his prospects to make the ball club. He felt the tryouts were just a big league team going through the motions.
The workout was postponed two days in recognition of the national mourning of President Franklin Roosevelt. It took place on April 16. All three players fielded balls, swung at pitches from home plate and threw for Sox player-manager Joe Cronin.
According to reports, Cronin scarcely paid attention to what was happening on the field. Joe Cashman of the Boston Record, who sat with Cronin, said the manager was impressed with Robinson’s efforts. When it was over, Collins assured the players they would hear from the team soon. Later that day, Robinson had dinner at the Muchnicks’ on 9 Powelton Rd. (near Columbia Road).
The Red Sox never contacted Williams, Jethroe or Robinson. The 1945 team won 71 games and lost 83, finishing in second-to-last place in the American League. By comparison, the 1946 team, with star players back from WWII won 104 games and only lost 50, winning the A.L. pennant by 12 games over Detroit, and featured Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Rudy York, Ted Williams, and pitchers Boo Ferriss and Jim Bagby. They outpaced the Yankees by 17 games.
Jackie Robinson played with Montreal in the AAA level International League, in the Brooklyn Dodgers system in 1946, and integrated the majors the following season. When the Red Sox began to ostensibly consider black talent, they consulted legendary local pitcher Will “Cannonball” Jackman, about the brightest prospects of color. Jackman, a barnstorming fireballer with the Boston Royal Giants and other black teams — and a highly paid ringer for strong white indepedent teams — was a respected baseball figure throughout New England. He was still, at age 48, a standout pitcher the day of the Red Sox tryout.
Jackie Robinson was a regular guest at the Muchnick’s whenever the Dodgers visited the Hub to face the Braves. Jethroe became the first black Brave in 1950, and won Rookie of the Year honors at age 33. Williams never played in the majors. In 1953, the Braves signed another fleet colored outfielder, Bill Bruton.
It was Bruton who, when the team soon moved to Milwaukee, took a callow young Alabamian outfielder named Henry Aaron under his wing. Aaron went on to break the all-time major league home run record set by former Red Sox pitcher and slugger Babe Ruth.
The Red Sox were baseball’s last team to sign a black ball player, inking the mediocre Pumpsie Green in 1959. The team’s first black star was mid 1960’s pitcher Earl Wilson.
In an explanation in 1979, Joe Cronin, who became president of the American League, recalled:
“I remember the tryout very well. But after it, we told them our only farm club available was in Louisville, Ky., and we didn’t think they’d be interested in going there because of the racial feelings at the time.
Besides, this was after the season had started and we didn’t sign players off tryouts in those days to play in the big leagues. I was in no position to offer them a job. The general manager did the hiring and there was an unwritten rule at that time against hiring black players. I was just the manager.”
In 1967, the Boston Red Sox “Impossible Dream” team, picked by most baseball experts to finish ninth in the twelve-team American League, captured the A.L. pennant on a thrilling final day of the season.
As American urban centers such as Newark and Detroit burned in racial unrest, pivotal black and Latino players Elston Howard, George Scott, Joe Foy, Reggie Smith, John Wyatt, and Jose Santiago contributed to a ballclub led by slugger Carl Yastrzemski.
A year earlier, in an unprecedented incident of social outspokenness, that most famous Sox star of them all, Ted Williams, surprised listeners to his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech by stating: “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as anybody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
In 1975, with the Hub mired in passionate debate and widespread violence over forced school integration by busing, the Red Sox returned to the World Series for the first time since 1967. As in ’67, Carl Yastrzemski was the heart and soul of a team featuring significant black and Caribbean talent, including Luis Tiant, Jim Rice, Cecil Cooper, and the mercurial Rogelio Moret.
Like the ’67 club, the ’75 Bosox lost a heartbreaking World Series, but fielded a lineup the entire city could celebrate, from Roxbury to Charlestown. In 1986, Don Baylor, Jim Rice, Dave Henderson, and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd propelled Boston to another World Series.
The Braves left town after 1952, when ownership believed the city would no longer support a lackluster team in a town that favored the Red Sox. They played in Milwaukee until 1965, when Atlanta clamored for the major league status that would accompany having the first such franchise in the Deep South.
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